Big Novels about Big Forests
Lockdown, with its many frustrations, has, nevertheless, been a opportunity to do some reading, and I’ve made my way to the end of two arboreal novels in the past few weeks. Both of them have, in their own ways, offered perplexed and disturbing reading experiences.
Annie Proulx’s Barkskins (Fourth Estate, 2016) opens in 1693 and closes in 2013. It travels through the centuries with two families, the lives and deaths of whom are entangled with the colonisation of North America and the systematic destruction of its forests and native human and nonhuman inhabitants, as pioneering white Europeans hack their way westwards across the continent. The folly of colonial short-sightedness, greed, violence and ecocide, and the annihilation of the Mi’kmaw native American people and their culture are the motive forces for the novel. These themes are enacted in frequent and inventively gruesome human deaths, in the rising and waning of timber fortunes, and in grim and difficult lives, but the novel treats the existence of individual humans as but brief and transient moments. They are insignificant when compared to the vastness of life at the timescale of trees and the abiding of North America’s ancient forests. The real sadness of the novel is, however, that even as the new Americans constantly reiterate to each other that timber is a boundless resource, they are intent on converting the rich and complex ecology of the forests to sterile stumplands.
Richard Powers’s The Overstory (Vintage, 2018) tells a similar story of human greed and environmental destruction, concentrating on late twentieth and early twenty-first century USA rather than a dynastic history. The novel marshalls a cast of nine key characters, all of whom occupy and irritate in various ways the fringes of modern American corporate, intellectual and social life. Douglas Pavlicek is an invalided ex-serviceman with PTSD who attempts to atone for the clear-cutting of boreal forests (the horror of which is concealed by “vista corridors”, “beauty strips” or “voter’s curtains” of untouched trees along roadsides) by planting new trees. Patricia Westerford is a botanist excluded from conventional academia for arguing that trees ‘talk’ to each other, and welcomed back in as a messiah many years later when other researchers prove her correct. Olivia Vandergriff becomes an ecological activist (or terrorist, depending on one’s viewpoint) after a post-death and revivification epiphany. And so on. The world of The Overstory is one of entanglement: of the elemental connections between all the matter of the world, animate or otherwise; of the forgotten human dependence on the natural world for survival; of human spiritual, social and cultural connection and division with and from other humans and the nonhuman world. But, as in Barkskins, it is not humans, but trees that are the overarching story, the overstory.
These are not novels that offer enjoyable entertainment; instead, they provoke frustration at the lack of human desire to learn and change, along with a sense – as one turns the pages of an artefact made of pulped tree – of how compromised all of us are. Don’t, however, let this put you off, for the novels, like the Woodland Trust, are hopeful organisms.
by Catherine Parry
Volunteer Website Moderator